Finally, after what felt like an eternity of searching, Ben found the door and cranked it open. Relief flooded his body as he noticed the corridor was slightly better lit than the gym. Darkness still reigned supreme, but at least he could make out a few things.
Now that he knew where he was, he felt a bit sheepish about his earlier display. Lost in a fit of fear, he’d screamed into the dead comm, and then he’d slapped it over and over in an attempt to make it work. He hoped the surveillance cameras were dead, too; otherwise, he would have made for a good GoogleTube video back home.
Ben stepped into the cool hallway, and a peculiar lightheadedness came over him. He braced himself against the wall, feeling like he’d just downed ten shots of tequila in a row. Then, he blinked, and the world fell away.
He plummeted down into a dark well, except instead of one hole above, there were two. Those are my eyes. The clarity of this thought startled him.
Looking up, he watched his hand move of its own volition. It flexed, and he felt the whisper of a touch as the fingers tickled across his chest.
“Hey!” he shouted. “What’s going on?!”
The air hummed around him, and it sounded like speech. The cadence slowed, and the garbled words started making sense.
“Benjamin Hardwicke Lockheed. Male. Six feet tall, one-seventy pounds. Twenty-four years of age. Dark hair, blue eyes. Military guard for scientific supplies bound for Quarf 5 aboard the privately-owned vessel, Duke 12. Sportsman. Cocksman. Capacity for intelligence: limited. Capacity for violence: astounding. Very useful to our society.”
“Who the fuck are you? And did you just say I’m stupid?”
“It’s a short-coming, Benjamin. At least you get laid a fair amount.”
“Well, there’s that. But, dude . . . who are you?”
“My name is Aladnadine, and I am the new owner of your body. A good specimen. You’ve taken good care of it. Thank you.”
“Um . . . no. You can’t have it. I don’t have many things, but this body is definitely mine.”
“Good luck taking it back. I’ve waited hundreds of years for this, and you’re not going to ruin it for me.”
“What?! Are you nuts?! This is stealing!”
“You bet. Now shut up before I make the subconscious absorb you.”
“Well, Captain? I’m waiting for an answer.”
Drake covered the speaker. Snichlo couldn’t hear him without pushing the button, but his paranoia prevented him from relying on technology. “Since this thing is working again, I’m going to see if I can use it to get everyone up here.”
“Great plan, Cap,” Everson said. “I knew there was a reason you’re in charge, and I’m just second-in-command.”
Drake’s face squinched up. “Yeah, that’s you, all right. You’re a great, big number two.” He pushed the button. “All hands. Repeat, all hands. This is your captain. Report immediately to the bridge. Repeat—-“
Snichlo laughed. “Nice try, Captain. This communications line is strictly one on one.”
Drake grimaced. “Where’s Dirk?”
“Taking a nap. Shall we meet or not?”
Drake looked to Pamela, and she stared back with a blank face. Everson’s turn: he merely shrugged. “What else are we going to do? We’ve got less than a day’s worth of life. Let’s not spend it being bored.”
Drake nodded. “Okay.” He pushed the button. “Let’s meet in the common room.”
“I’d rather not,” Snichlo said. “The cafeteria sounds like a better place. Agreed?”
“Sure. I’ll be down in ten.”
“Good. Come alone.” There was a click, and the comm died again.
Drake turned to Everson. “Go down to the armory. Get guns. Then get Rico, Ben, and Winter to help storm the commissary. Okay?”
“Pamela. Wait until I’ve engaged the enemy in conversation, so you don’t run into him by accident. Then get Janna and a first aid kit and check on Dirk. Get him up and working, no matter the cost.”
“What about Jason? FNG, I mean,” Everson said.
“I get the feeling that’s who I’m going to see in the caf,” Drake said. “You have your orders. Let’s move!”
The thing inhabiting Jason’s body looked down at the unconscious Dirk. He figured it was safe to leave the body there, but one thing took precedence over all.
Snichlo took Dirk’s booze from its hiding spot and broke it on the floor. The stink nearly overpowered him, but it was worth it. He couldn’t have anyone else finding that bottle.
Ben licked his lips, then realized he didn’t have lips anymore, and he wished for a beer. Or perhaps some whiskey. The day he was having, a good tequila brain blast was probably in order.
“Hey, Aladdin! Or whatever the fuck your name is! How’s about tossing a brewski down here?”
“I don’t drink alcohol, Benjamin.”
“I do. I don’t think I can survive the rest of my life without beer. It’s one of my few joys.”
Blinding light stabbed through the eyeholes above him, and he heard a distant echoing voice: “Ben! Thank God I found you! We’ve got trouble!”
Ben squinted, and the brightness diminished enough to reveal Lt. Everson, holding a flashlight. “LT!” Ben shouted. “Help! Some alien fuckin’ possessed me!”
Then, he heard his own voice: “Hey, LT. What’s shaking?”
The conversation above faded out, and Aladnadine’s voice filled the void. “He can’t hear you, Benjamin. Now, who is this LT?”
“Fuck off. Why should I help you?”
Aladnadine growled in annoyance. “Never mind. I’ll get the information from your brain notes.”
“Hey! That’s private!” Ben hoped Everson was not filed close to Jerking Off.
“Lt. Rockne Everson. Asshole. Pilot. Interesting. I can’t tell whether you like him or hate him.”
“He’s a friend. We bust each other’s balls.”
“Regardless, it looks like he’s gone to pot. He’s always been an ugly bastard, but years of drinking and poor diet have caught up to him. You people get fat easily.”
“Well . . . .” Ben found it hard to defend LT on this one. “I’ve known him for ten years. That’s like, a third of my life. A lot can happen in that time.”
“Not good with math, either. How did you get so far from your home planet? Luck?”
“Don’t look at me. I’m just a guard.”
“And not a very good one. Still, you gave me an excellent physique, which your friend sadly lacks. I’m stuck in a bit of a quandary on this one.”
“You can always go fuck yourself . . . .”
Aladnadine groaned. “Are you never at a loss for words? Now you’re just talking to talk.”
“Talk’s all I have left right now,” Ben said.
“Your friend’s fat and ugly. We’re desperate for bodies, but we don’t want to accept a substandard quality. Should I kill your friend and save him from your fate?”
“Wait. You want to kill Everson because he’s fat and ugly?”
“More or less.”
“Jesus. It’s a good thing you weren’t in on the childhood obesity Senate hearings. Our population would be cut down by, like, three-quarters overnight.”
“I don’t get it.”
Ben grunted. “Look it up, asshole.”
“Keep it up, Benjamin. I may still yet terminate you.”
Something clicked in Ben’s mind, and he realized with sudden clarity that Aladnadine could not do this. If he had the capability, he would have certainly done so by now. Ben would never have put up with this kind of shit from anybody, so why would this alien?
He filed this bit of useful information away and hoped his visitor wouldn’t be able to find it.
“You okay, Ben?” Everson asked. “You seem kind of distant.”
Ben blinked and shook his head. “I’m fine. It’s just, you know, all of this is too hard to swallow. We’re being taken over by aliens?” He sniffed at the lieutenant. “Have you been drinking?”
“No, but I should be. Have you seen Rico and Winter around?”
The thing inside Ben’s body detected no odor of alcohol. He smiled. “Nope, but they’ve got to be around here somewhere. Did you check the caf?”
“Fuck that. Cap’s meeting the alien in there. We need to get guns. Follow me.”
Janna had never been one for booze, but on occasion, she’d found that drinking helped her self-esteem and brought out the conversationalist within her. Considering the value of these characteristics, she always kept a bottle of vodka in her quarters. It didn’t smell bad, and the taste didn’t make her want to puke, like all the other hard liquor she’d tried. Best of all, vodka got the job done.
Now more than ever, after seeing the horrible display between Rico and that . . . that . . . slut, she needed oblivion. She poured an inch into a glass, reconsidered, and filled the glass to the halfway mark. Then, as she raised the tumbler to her lips, someone knocked on her door.
“Janna! Are you in there? It’s me, Pamela!”
“Shit.” She put the glass down without taking even a sip and cranked open her door. “What’s up?”
“I’ll explain on the way. Do you have a first aid kit?”
“Uh . . . sure.” She rushed back to her desk, where the vodka awaited, and grabbed a white box from the middle drawer. “Who’s hurt?”
“Dirk. Come on! We’ve got to hurry!”
Janna glanced back at the booze, then decided there was no time. Besides, she thought she might need a level head for whatever happened next.
Drake was not surprised to find the door to the commissary open; what did surprise him was the presence of Rico and Winter. Both stood like guards behind a sitting Jason, one on each side, arms crossed.
Jason leaned forward and steepled his fingers. “Captain Drake. Good to see you. Have a seat.”
“What are they doing here?” Drake pointed to his crewmates.
“They’re with me.”
Jason chuckled. “What a primitive word. According to the brain notes, a lot of religious sects on your planet came up with the word. It has such negative connotations.”
“You stole their bodies,” Drake said. “That’s pretty fuckin’ negative.”
“Needs must, my new friend.”
“Is that why you’re here? To steal us?”
“I’m here to free my people.”
“At the expense of my people.”
“Yours is an unenlightened species. Primitive. Slow to learn. We, on the other hand, are vastly superior. This is no different from what you do to lesser animals on your planet.”
“If you’re so awesome, why do you need our bodies?”
Jason’s jaw clenched so hard it looked like bugs were crawling under his skin. “It was no fault of ours, I assure you. No one could have survived what happened.”
Drake sat down and grinned. “Enlighten me.”
When Pamela finished explaining, Janna couldn’t believe a word of it. Then, she thought about the scene between Rico and Winter, and she had to wonder if they’d done it because they’d been possessed. No, she decided they would have probably done it, anyway.
Just to be safe, she told Pamela about it.
“And you think they might have . . . not been themselves?”
“It kinda’ sounds like something they’d do, though.”
“Yeah, but still, you should have seen how hard they were going at it. I’m surprised they didn’t break each other.”
They arrived at the engine room and rushed through the open door. The customary heat down here had dwindled to a coolness, and the stink of oil and gas almost faded in comparison to the reek of whiskey.
Both women stepped over the broken bottle and rushed to Dirk’s side. Janna gave the first aid kit to Pamela so her hands were free to check the mechanic for injuries.
“Is he going to be all right?” Pamela asked.
“His breathing and pulse are fine,” Janna said. “There’s some swelling on the back of his head, but it’s not too bad. He’s got a concussion, but he should be okay. Give me some smelling salts.”
Pamela opened the kit and fumbled through it for a moment, then handed a vial over to Janna. “Do people actually use these things?”
“Uh . . . yeah. I’m using it right now.”
“Help me turn him over.”
As soon as Dirk was on his back, Janna opened the vial and waved it under his nose. It didn’t take long; his eyes popped open, and he sat up, rubbing at his nostrils. “Jesus! What happened?”
“We don’t have time to explain,” Pamela said. “We’re in deep shit, and we’re probably going to die. Get your ass up and fix the engines.” She slapped a flashlight into his palm.
Dirk paused, ready to make a witty comment, but when he saw the fear and desperation in her wide eyes, he only said, “Okay.”
Snichlo opened Jason’s mouth and said, “We were so very close to the next step in our evolution. We could do nothing more with our bodies, so we started working on living without a physical vessel. We’d had some success, but our spirits kept returning to our flesh traps.”
Drake laughed. “I know how that goes.” He glanced at Winter.
“We knew a nova would eventually take our sun and our solar system, but we thought it wouldn’t happen for centuries. We were wrong, and we all died because of it.”
“So, you’re a ghost?” Drake asked.
“Yes. Just like our planet.”
“I did not drink enough for this conversation.”
“You people depend too much on chemical alteration of moods. Perhaps this is why you’re not very advanced.”
“Yeah, but at least we’re still alive, Casper.”
“If we hadn’t been so advanced, we would have perished with our bodies. Instead, among the dust, we live. If you can call it life. At first, we were overjoyed. Our intellect had overcome the most powerful force in the universe. And then, we started missing the physical pleasures.”
“Yes, but not just that. What is your favorite food?”
“Cheeseburgers. I love ‘em. Can’t get enough.”
“Imagine living forever and not being able to eat one ever again.”
Drake nodded. “Yeah, I guess that does suck.”
“For hundreds of years, we floated through the cosmos with nothing to do but exist. We couldn’t even kill ourselves. Conversation helped, but after the first twenty years, we ran out of things to say.”
“Wait. So you’re all fired up because you were bored?” Drake let out a belly laugh and nearly doubled over. “Holy Christ, that’s rich! Hold on.” He stood and headed for the kitchen. “I’m getting a beer. You guys want one?”
When he turned to look at them, all three faces wore the same look: horror. But as soon as they noticed they’d been seen, their expressions shifted to disinterest.
Weird, he thought. “I’ll take that as a no.”
“We don’t need your pathetic mood enhancers,” Jason said. “We’re in touch with ourselves. We know who we are, and what we’re capable of.”
Drake strode back to the table and pointed his finger at Jason. “You want to know what’s really pathetic? Floating around in space with nothing to do but stroke your pompous, superior minds. Is that what you mean by being in touch with yourselves?”
Jason smiled, not the result Drake had been hoping for. “Say what you will, Captain Drake, but we are still smarter than you. We lured you out here, and now you belong to us.”
“Bullshit. I’m here to deliver cargo—-“
“—-to a crew of humans who never made it to Quarf 5,” Jason continued. “We intercepted them, stole the useful bodies, destroyed the others, and radioed earth to send us more of you. What do you have to say to that? No snappy comebacks?”
Drake had a few witty remarks he could have made, but he thought he’d do something useful instead. “No. Just a question. Why didn’t you possess all of us? Why not me? It would make sense if you took over all of our bodies.”
Jason smiled and started playing with his fingers. “That’s no big mystery. We’re just an exploratory expedition. As soon as we have the lay of the land, the rest of us will arrive. As to whom we choose, it’s just arbitrary.”
Drake grinned back. Not even aliens were immune to his bullshit detector. This, coupled with their apparent fear of alcohol, formed a theory in his head, and he couldn’t wait to try it out on his companions.
“All right, FNG,” a voice at the door said. “I’ve heard enough. Surrender before anyone gets hurt.”
Drake turned to see Everson and Ben, both holding pulse rifles. The latter aimed loosely around the room while the former trained his sights on Jason.
“If you’ve been listening,” Jason said, “you’d know my name is actually Snichlo, and it would be a mistake to shoot me.”
Everson lifted an eyebrow. “Cap?”
“Stand down, Lieutenant,” Drake said. “We don’t want to hurt Jason’s body before we can bring him back.” Jason’s body chuckled at this. “Besides, they can’t hurt us, either. They need our bodies.” This time, Drake laughed and looked at Snichlo. Eat it, asshole.
“Oh, really?” Ben asked.
“Yeah,” Drake said. He turned just in time to see Ben level his gun at Everson, but not in time to warn him. The gun fired with a room-rattling chum!, and Everson’s back exploded, showering the floor with charred meat.
“No!” Drake yelled. Without thinking, he launched himself forward, his hands in claws as he rushed Ben. Rico moved so quickly the captain had no idea what hit him; he only knew that a crushing weight held him down, and no matter how hard he struggled, he’d never break free from the half-nelson.
Ahead of him, he saw Everson’s blank face, his wide eyes staring back. The scent of freshly cooked steak filled the room, and Drake’s vision wavered and blurred.
Snichlo stepped between him and the lieutenant’s corpse. “Don’t take too much for granted, Captain.”
Snot ran down Drake’s upper lip. “You son of a bitch!”
Snichlo knelt down and grabbed a handful of Drake’s blond hair, jerking his head back. “I’m going to leave you here to mourn for a while. I also want you to think about surrendering. You’re ours, anyway, but we’re not merciless. If you willingly give up your bodies, we can make it easy and painless. If not . . . .” He did not finish the sentence. Instead, he motioned to Rico to let Drake go, then he nodded to the door. “We’ll be in the common room, when you reach your decision.”
Drake’s body shuddered as tears came freely down his cheeks. Rage choked up in his throat, and he wanted to scream his revenge at them, but all he could do was weep over the body of his closest friend.
Once outside the caf, Snichlo turned to Aladnadine. “A thought occurs to me. The captain’s discussion with us might have been a distraction to keep us away from the engine room. Is there any way to stop the others from fixing this ship?”
“Well, from what I understand, their mechanic is an idiot. But he’s good at fixing things. The only way to make sure he doesn’t fix the Duke is to bust up the engines, but that would be too much effort.”
“Agreed.” Snichlo tapped his chin with a forefinger. “I was hoping to spare that Dirk guy, since he is a good specimen, but the alcohol in his blood stream won’t be gone for several hours. I’m afraid you’ll have to kill him.”
“Not a problem, sir.” Ben checked the rifle and saw that the energy level had replenished. “This won’t take long.”
“Good,” Snichlo said. “Let’s call the others, shall we?”
TO BE CONTINUED!